The world after high school can be daunting, even for those headed for the comparative shelter of a college dormitory. Students with special needs could often use a few more years of support as they learn to live on their own. A handful of Evanston Township High School students chose to meet the real world gradually through the services offered at ETHS’s Transition House, a cottage on Lemar Avenue where they can learn how to live autonomously.
“These students have the credits to graduate but they don’t leave the school system,” said John Ostrowski, who supervises the house, which opened this fall, and has taught special education at ETHS. There are seven full-time students, he said, and “another seven who come from the high school to the transition house in the afternoon to do vocational skills.”
Students arrive at the house, located on the northwest corner of the ETHS campus near the nature center, on time as if for a school day. First thing in the morning, the day is planned; and for the remainder of the morning, the young adults carry out those plans.
“We meet on Monday and talk about what we’re going to do for the week,” Brittany Woods told a visitor at a recent open house there. “We decide as a class what we’re going to cook for the week, and we go to the store and get what we need. We’re budgeting our own money, so we do a whole lot of healthy eating and not a lot of junk food,” she added.
“They make the lists and do the grocery shopping,” said Crystal Steidley a special education teacher at ETHS.
At the grocery store, “we back off and let them take the initiative,” Ms. Steidley added. The students stick to their budget by comparing prices and brands, said Liz Schroeder, who also teaches at ETHS and at the Transition House.
“This is part of lifelong learning,” said Mr. Ostrowski.
The students cook meals two or three times a week. Some of their favorites are French toast, pasta with red sauce or white sauce and broccoli and – every teen’s favorite – pizza. Even when someone else cooks, the students wash the dishes, clean the kitchen and launder the towels and other linen.
Afternoons are spent outside the house. “We have a field trip every day,” Ms. Woods said. They go to the Evanston Library; they shop at Target; or they do artwork at Arts & Life in Glenview. They also have jobs, said Mr. Ostrowski: doing laundry at Three Crowns Park or the North Shore Retirement Home, wiping tables at Northwestern University dining halls or shelving books at the Skokie Public Library.
Although many of the activities are student-led, academics still play a part. “We do functional reading – reading the newspaper. They do writing and journaling,” said Ms. Steidley.
Math plays a part as well, said Ms. Schroeder. “Budgeting, looking at ads for comparison shopping – learning what it takes to set up an apartment.”
The Transition House was “the dream of Dr. Maria Smith, the special education director at ETHS,” Mr. Ostrowski said. ETHS has a private partner in this venture, the Center for Independent Futures, an Evanston-based organization that helps families foster independent living for their young adults with special needs.
The curriculum at the Transition House is based on CIF’s full-life future planning, said Dr. Jane Doyle, founder and executive director of CIF. “It teaches students a process for goal-setting and teaches them how to access resources,” she added. CIF also provides help to the teaching staff at Transition House. “We work with teachers on professional development, to help them create a different [teaching] process for [teaching] students doing their own [life] planning. This helps students have a bigger voice in their future,” said Dr. Doyle.
“I can’t say enough about Dr. Doyle, “said Mr. Ostrowski. “To make this work for kids, everyone has to work together. Kids need to hear a different perspective,” he added. Already the students are learning to live like a family. They chime in about the responsibility for keeping the living room neat for guests and about sticking to the budget when purchasing food and they recap their day before they leave.
“This is a very, very forward-thinking project,” said Dr. Doyle. “Time will tell, but I can only think that students will prosper here.”
The Lamar house is becoming a home.